I think most of us have at least one relative that we refer to as ‘eccentric’ or ‘colorful’ when we mention them out in the world, but whom we (lovingly) refer to as ‘crazy as a bedbug’ when we’re around other family members. In my clan, that was my grandmother’s sister, Aunt C. She provided our family with so much drama (and entertainment) for so many years…I’m not sure what we would have talked about if we hadn’t had her around!
I don’t know much about my great Aunt’s early years, other than a few shreds of a story about her going away to some sort of special camp one summer…I don’t even want to guess what that was about. She always seemed to think that she was ‘special’, that’s for sure.
When my sister and I were little, Aunt C would sometimes help Mama or Grandmama out by taking us to her house. We never really looked forward to those visits, but she often lured us with a stop for ice cream at Zesto’s on the way (Lynnie was a sucker for their soft-serve dipped in radioactive red cherry stuff, and it’s not like we had a choice anyway). We would obediently get into her car as she smiled at us with her permanently akimbo dark red lipstick. We knew that woman was a terrible driver, but we just climbed in and hung on for dear life (cars didn’t have seat-belts back then). Once, when Aunt C slammed hard on the breaks, Lynnie flew from the backseat to the front and hit her head on the radio knob. We had to take her to the emergency room for stitches and my Aunt took me to get Mama out of work. I ran into the insurance office where my mother worked and, in spite of being told to just tell her that we needed her outside, I blurted out, “MAMA…we were in an accident and Lynn was hurt BAD!” Naturally my poor mama freaked out, and I ended up being red-faced with the shame of naturally being over-dramatic. (Later in life everyone found out that, between pills and booze, Aunt C hadn’t really had a sober day in a very long time…I guess Lynnie and I were just lucky.)
Our aunt really did try her best to keep us entertained on those days we spent with her, enticing us to play game after game of Crazy 8’s and Go Fish on a rickety card table she’d set up in her den. (That same card table became the ‘children’s table’ one Thanksgiving and, with the help of our cousin Karen, we almost knocked the legs out from under it.) Aunt C’s house was nice enough, but it had a weird, damp smell. Things were ‘clean’, but kind of musty. When we were a little older we learned to rinse out glasses before drinking from them, after one of us took one from the cupboard and watched big soapy bubbles form as we held it under the tap.
Now, remember that I was a child in the South during the era in which The Help is set. My aunt had a maid who was (seriously) about 4 feet tall and at least 100 years old. Her name was Stancy and she had apparently been with the family for a long, long time. Lynnie and I liked her a lot, but she rarely said much of anything beyond, “How you DO?!?” whenever she saw us. I remember her washing dishes (well, maybe ‘washing isn’t exactly the right word…messing with them, anyway) and fussing over (and about) my Aunt’s equally ancient dog Abby, but not much beyond that. We were told that when my cousin Ellen was a child, she once asked Stancy if she was made of chocolate…a reasonable question, given the beautiful cocoa color of her skin. At least Ellen didn’t lick the poor old woman, like those little girls in Corrina, Corrina.
All of the meals in that house were eaten at a formal dining room table, and my Uncle would come home for lunch every day to find that table already set with napkins and prefilled glasses of sweet tea…like Andy back in Mayberry, or maybe one of the Darrens at Samantha’s house. There were often weird things like tomato aspic (aka strange red jello), and little plates with carrot sticks and various pickled things…nothing that interested a child. When we were there, my sister and I were usually fed before our great Uncle got home anyway, which was a blessing. We tried hard to avoid that man as much as possible…he was annoying and a little scary. His ‘hobby’ was spending time on the University campus, walking around to get a good look (ew!) at all of the young girls. (Oh, we found out later that he had actually tried to kiss an older cousin on the mouth at one of her teen-aged birthday parties…a kid’s intuition is usually pretty much right on, I guess.)
I’ve written a little about Aunt C before (she’s the same aunt of the infamous ‘$15 check for two little girls to split’ fame). She was also known for the way she walked into a room…arms crossed, pocketbook eternally dangling from one crossed elbow, her yellowish (bleached?) hair and clothes just a little mussed, her signature lipstick all over the place. We unsuccessfully tried to keep her from kissing us and giving us red-smeared cheeks, and we were trained to not call attention to her missed buttons or multiple band-aids (she had a habit of cutting herself whenever she cooked…and not noticing it for hours). We also resisted bursting into laughter when she pronounced the word for food cooked on the grill as ‘Bobby-Cue’ (her oldest son’s name, with cue tacked on).
My aunt had married a man who she thought was going to be wildly successful. He was an attorney, and I imagine that he was a reasonable provider (my aunt never worked), but he didn’t give her the life of luxury that I think Aunt C was expecting. Sadly, her little plates of crudités were wasted on him and a few relatives instead of the circles she thought she’d be running in. She and her husband had two boys who both left home as soon as possible, and that poor woman was just bored and sad. She saw the same psychiatrist for many years, never got any better, and was constantly on a range of prescription medications…the proverbial uppers and downers of the day, among others. She could be sweet and caring one minute, and falling asleep in her plate of food a half an hour later, or rambling on about some story that made absolutely no sense. I know that my grandmother and her other sister (Aunt B) tried to help their sibling, but she didn’t want help and always denied that she drank, or that her pills were anything but medicinal.
I moved away from my home town before Aunt C passed away in a nursing home in 2000 (about 5 years after the picture I have of her here). Mama told me that, in her final days, our aunt would call her almost weekly, asking her to pick up some Listerine for her (“The biggest bottle they have, please.”) I imagine her sitting there, hitting shots of mouthwash and wondering where she could get a new tube of Revlon’s ‘Love That Red’. I hope you’re happier now, Auntie.
(And dear Baby Jesus…don’t let my niece ever have to write anything about her ‘Crazy Aunt Tammy’….please?)